social health

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?
—The Beatles, “Eleanor Rigby”

There’s a reason why solitary confinement is not only considered punishment, but recognized as dehumanizing, barbaric, inhumane and unethical.

We are physiologically wired to connect with each other. That deeply satisfying feeling of togetherness and belonging is a fundamental part of our total health and wellness as human beings.

What is ‘social health’ and why should we care?

‘Social health’ is the one ‘health’, alongside physical, mental and spiritual, we don’t really talk about and are less intuitively familiar with, however we can no longer take our social health for granted, because it is literally killing us.

Traditionally ‘social health’ references are characteristic of society e.g. “A society is healthy when there is equal opportunity for all and access by all to the goods and services essential to fully function as a citizen.”

But the ‘social health’ which we are quickly discovering is having a severe and negative effect on our total individual health refers to;

“that dimension of an individual’s well-being that concerns how they get along with other people, how other people react to them, and how they interact with social institutions and societal mores”

We can consider social health alongside more familiar terms related to individuals like; sociability, socialbleness, social adjustment, social life or social functioning.

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” – World Health Organization

Since the recognition of an individuals social condition by the World Health Organization in 1974 as a major pillar of total health, and the continued growing body of research and evidence, social health has become increasingly relevant.

In January 2018, Britain appointed Tracey Couch as its first ever Minister of Loneliness to address the growing 9 million people in the country who always or often feel lonely, following a commission that recognized loneliness being as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The good news however, is that in contrast we also have strong evidence that indicates people who have good social health i.e. strong relationships with family, friends and their community, are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.


What does ‘social health’ encompass?

Social health includes internal characteristics such as; ‘Do I have a good relationship with myself?’ and ‘How do I experience and process social interactions with others?’, and also external characteristics; ‘Am I effective at communicating what I want?’ or ‘What behaviors are helpful or destructive in building great relationships?’

Social health encompasses your ability to form meaningful relationships with other people and interact in healthy, positive ways, the way you adapt to different social situations, how you experience a sense of belonging and inclusion, your ability to reflect social norms, the quality and variety of relationships and one’s ability to perform normal roles in society.

Characteristics of poor social health might include; low self-esteem, anti-social behavior (e.g. aggression, violence, abuse, disrespect), no support network, no close relationships, no or minimal social interaction.

Characteristics of good social health would include; positive self-esteem, positive social behavior (empathy, patience, kindness, communicative, selflessness etc), strong support network, many and varied relationships, many and varied depth of relationship intimacy, regular interaction.


How do we build our social health?

We start building internal dialog and external behaviors affecting our social capabilities from the moment we are born. Our earliest experiences influence brain development that affect how we experience, manage and express positive and negative emotions that directly impact our ability to develop close and satisfying relationships.

Socializing infants is an important part of their development and growth.  As such, ‘children who develop social and emotional capacities in the first years of life are better prepared to be self-confident, trusting, empathic, inquisitive and communicative as well as capable of relating well to others’ and according to Kid Care Canada, ‘Social and emotional health is considered the best foundation for mental, emotional and physical wellness ’.

Peer Pressure – ages 9-15 can also be a particularly formative part of social health development as they navigate emotional and physical changes, new concepts surrounding identity, responsibility, independence, decision making, values, feelings and evaluating risks and boundaries associated with new experiences.

Social pressure to conform, can be powerful, difficult to resist and particularly seminal on social health during adolescence.

Etiquette – ‘a system of conventional rules that regulate social behavior.’

For centuries, every culture has had its own manuscripts, treatises, books and learnings about the rules of acceptable behavior in society.

In Western culture, ‘etiquette’ was delivered top-down in an effort of conformity, control and social pedigree. From teaching knights and nobles how to conduct themselves in the court of the king,  to training daughters for a future in housewifery, and often used to distinguish class.

Popular in mid-1800 to early 1900’s Western ‘finishing schools’ for young people taught social graces and etiquette, but the 1960’s influences of capitalism and feminism contributed to a quick decline of formal etiquette training.  In recent times it has been re-purposed as a valuable professional and personal development skill.

Alike other habits (bad and good), our social behavior over time molds the structure of the brain and our related capabilities.  Our social connection habits leave a physical imprint on us.   “If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face-to-face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.”  – Barbara L. Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina.


Ambulance at the bottom of the cliff

Social scientists only first started studying marriages by observing them in action in the 1970s in response to a crisis: married couples were divorcing at unprecedented rates.

The biggest influence on our sociability appears to occur in our early developmental years and then we don’t seem to invest actively until things go wrong: bullying, loneliness, workplace conflict, harassment, the breakdown of marriage or other long-term, committed, intimate relationships, abusive or dysfunctional relationships, high-stress relationships such as parents of chronically ill children, infertile couples, military couples, veterans with PTSD and many more.

We have a strong Western culture of relational therapy (family, couple or individual counselling, psychotherapists, psychologists) and self-help aimed at understanding where we’ve gone wrong and how we can change, after the fact.

 Where to next?

At any point in time our social capabilities, values, beliefs and behaviors that contribute to our social health are a build up of direct and indirect learnings across time.

The conscious and sub-conscious teachings from our parents, relatives, friends and all the social experiences we encounter as we participate within our communities, with our work colleagues or complete strangers across differing cultures, values and belief systems.

The concerning takeaway is that much of our social ability develops as a result of living life.  Which is great if we’re privileged to be born into a virtuous cycle of positive, social learnings and experiences. But what becomes of those caught in a vicious cycle of negative learned behaviors? Or those who have become disabled by an experience out of their control like abandonment, neglect or abuse?

We are mostly passive in our social health, until it goes wrong… and unfortunately there’s overwhelming evidence that it’s going wrong.

Pro-active not Re-active

Alongside physical and mental health, our ‘social health’ is a critical part of our total health.

We MUST start pro-actively learning and improving our understanding and actions around our own social health, and that of our partners, parents, children, friends, colleagues and community.

Assess your own social health by starting with these 5 basic questions;

  1. How often do I feel lonely?
  2. How well do I form and maintain relationships?
  3. Who makes up my social network?
  4. Do I have people I can turn to for support?
  5. Do I make an effort to be social?


If you’re feeling lonely here are some resources that might help. You might also consider talking to your medical practitioner or a local help line. There is help. Please reach out.


Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

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